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Recurring Nightmares – Dissecting UW

I get the distinct impression that most of the people devouring information from last weekend’s events—the first weekend of Theros legality—are disappointed by the lack of unique and fresh archetypes being portrayed in the top 8 lists. Rather than some kind of new brew, we’ve been shown classic U/W control, R/G aggro, and mono-red lists, and many are considering it a letdown, citing the lack of sufficient Theros additions as lazy work by deckbuilders who simply replaced some of the cards from Innistrad Block with Theros cards. Personally, I find this assertion ridiculous, as I think that not only are the decks very different from the ones being played a week ago, but the environment in which they’re being played is drastically different, as well.

UW Flash – Phil Lorren (SCG ATL 9/15)

[deck]Main Deck
1 Aetherling
4 Augur of Bolas
4 Restoration Angel
3 Detention Sphere
4 Azorius Charm
2 Dissipate
1 Essence Scatter
1 Quicken
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
3 Syncopate
4 Think Twice
4 Supreme Verdict
8 Island
6 Plains
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Encroaching Wastes
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
1 Moorland Haunt
Sideboard
1 Pithing Needle
1 Aetherling
2 Archangel of Thune
3 Rhox Faithmender
2 Blind Obedience
1 Celestial Flare
1 Dispel
2 Negate
1 Urgent Exorcism
1 Cavern of Souls[/deck]

UW Control – Max Tietze (SCG Worchester 9/29)

[deck]Main Deck
1 Aetherling
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Ratchet Bomb
4 Detention Sphere
4 Azorius Charm
1 Celestial Flare
2 Dissolve
1 Essence Scatter
1 Quicken
3 Sphinx’s Revelation
2 Syncopate
3 Divination
4 Supreme Verdict
8 Island
8 Plains
4 Azorius Guildgate
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Mutavault
Sideboard
2 Pithing Needle
2 Yoked Ox
1 Celestial Flare
2 Last Breath
3 Negate
2 Jace, Memory Adept
3 Glare of Heresy[/deck]

The divergences between Max’s build and Phil’s are far, far fewer than many of the lists I could have chosen to compare, and yet the decks are still quite a bit different. Phil was an early adopter of running [card]Quicken[/card], a spell we’ll likely see played in greater frequency as the format progresses without a strong one-mana blue cantrip for card selection. Let’s take a look at what the changes were between the middle and end of September:

-4 [card]Augur of Bolas[/card]
-4 [card]Restoration Angel[/card]
-2 [card]Dissipate[/card]
-4 [card]Think Twice[/card]
-4 [card]Glacial Fortress[/card]
-1 [card]Moorland Haunt[/card]

These cards all rotated out of the format, so obviously they needed to be replaced. There are no direct analogues for some, though others have reasonable parallels.

[card]Omenspeaker[/card] has been discussed as a potential replacement for [card]Augur of Bolas[/card]. I have a few qualms with this line of thought. While many have been citing the lack of an actual card in hand as the main problem with [card]Omenspeaker[/card], I have a bit of a different take, as on average, I drew less than half a card with Augur as it was. My issue isn’t the weakened parallel between Augur and Speaker, but rather the loss of [card]Restoration Angel[/card] and the changing shape of the format itself that weakens your two-drop’s justification overall.

In the beginning of the format, no one really wanted to run Augur, it was more a product of really wanting to run [card]Restoration Angel[/card], and needing a creature that gained some value from the presence of Angel in the deck, so you have some baseline target for her that allows you to utilize Angel as more than a 3/4 with Haste. She is totally serviceable as just that, as anyone who has played her is likely to know, but the difference in margin when you get to cantrip from her versus not is miles wide. Because [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] was not a realistic baseline for a 2-mana play, other options were considered, and Augur got the job.

The fact that the format was overrun with 2-power creatures in the form of [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card], [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card], [card]Ash Zealot[/card] and the like was icing on the cake, as it allowed the UW decks to buy some time against the hyper-aggressive red-based decks that could often race a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. It also got you three cards closer to finding the Verdict, which was a boon.

These red decks still exist, and the presence of them in the top 8 of last weekend, along with the overall victory of the lone Mono-Red in the top 8, ensures that they aren’t going anywhere. And yet I still can’t advocate running [card]Omenspeaker[/card] in that slot. If you’re going to pay 2 mana for a road block without [card]Restoration Angel[/card] in the deck, and you aren’t drawing a card anyway, you might as well play a card that will allow you to change gears when you want to, survives [card]Anger of the Gods[/card] and [card]Lightning Strike[/card], and can block a turn 2 Green creature as well as Red. I can’t imagine running [card]Omenspeaker[/card] right now when [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] does all it does. Even in a UW shell, rather than a UR, it has so much going for it.

[card]Think Twice[/card] may be the single most important deviation from the last iteration of Standard UW control to this season’s. The loss of a pure card draw spell that happens early and at instant speed fundamentally changes the way the deck plays its early turns, and means you’re leaning much harder on your [card]Azorious Charm[/card]s to cantrip, and much harder on your [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]s to get you back into the game on turn four. You don’t have the ability to play the same kind of draw-go game anymore while you wait to hit your land drops and recover, because the consistency of the early game isn’t there anymore. You’re forced to replace the [card]Think Twice[/card]s with [card]Divination[/card]s, and they are very, very different cards. In the old format, you could spend turns two and three doing nothing. Your opponent was forced to debate whether they should play into your counterspell mana (holding up [card]Essence Scatter[/card]/[card]Syncopate[/card] on turn 2 and adding [card]Dissipate[/card] on turn 3), or to try and blank those counters by passing the turn – only for you to cast or flash back [card]Think Twice[/card] and utilize your mana anyway. With those spells converted to Divination, you no longer have the ability to have your cake and eat it too, and if you’re looking for specific cards on turn three (like a fourth land or a Verdict), your opponent has free reign on their turn 3 or 4 to play what they will – possibly a [card]Domri Rade[/card] or [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card]. Unfortunately there’s little you can do to work around this, because the options for spells that draw cards at instant speed are sparse in this environment, and those that do it on the cheap even more so. You’re looking at [card]Azorius Charm[/card], [card]Izzet Charm[/card], [card]Quicken[/card], and… that’s it. Expanding the search beyond instant-speed options, the only additions you gain for drawing cards without caveats (ie, not Auras with Enchant Creature, etc) are [card]Divination[/card], [card]Pilfered Plans[/card], and [card]Prophetic Prism[/card]. The options are extremely narrow. I’ve seen lists running all of these cards, simply because you don’t have an alternative. It’s a choice bred of necessity.

And really, this seems to be the major difference between control in the former era versus the new – which constraints you’re willing to live with.

The final major change from the rotation revolves around the changes to the manabase. With the loss of [card]Glacial Fortress[/card] – as close to actual Tundra as we’re likely to see in a deck like this – and the adoption of [card]Azorius Guildgate[/card] as a “well, we need it” concession to the mana constraints of the deck, our mana production has slowed down by about half a turn. We can’t be certain of having access to on-curve untapped mana at all points, and sometimes we need to leave ourselves exposed for a turn in order to facilitate being on-curve further up the curve. You may have to eschew casting [card]Divination[/card] on turn 3 in order to have access to four untapped mana on turn four for a Jace or Verdict. You may need to skip leaving up [card]Azorius Charm[/card] on turn 2 to guarantee you’ll hit [card]Detention Sphere[/card] on turn 3. Planning out the places where you can sacrifice a turn of mana optimization – or even better, planning to optimize your mana despite having one land ETB tapped – is much more important in this deck than it was a couple weeks ago. Additionally, leveraging the [card]Mutavault[/card]s is more important, as they’re likely to be more of an impediment than a boon in the early game, and can often be more of a speed bump for you than the opponent. They still excel at threatening opposing Planeswalkers and at protecting your own, as well as mitigating mana flood, so I can’t imagine not using them, but they don’t come without a cost of their own.

In terms of additions to the deck to compensate for the losses from the rotation, we see a renewed focus on non-creature threats from Max, in the form of a suite of Planeswalkers that have a newfound viability in a format that has no [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]s or [card]Hellrider[/card]s. Note that it’s the rotation of threats that were particularly effective against the ‘Walkers, and not necessarily the presence of new ways to protect them, that changes the feasibility of running them – you could surely have run Jace in a pre-Theros environment, but having your opponent attack with a team of zero-power creatures and triggering [card]Hellrider[/card] a bunch made it an impractical solution to a very real problem. With the rotation of these threats, your Planeswalkers line up much better with the face of the format than they previously did. Jace’s +1 ability has become a credible response to red and green decks, as their threat base is much wider than it is tall at this point. They’re forced to commit more to the board to compensate for the fact that many of their threats begin at two power, and this walks them into the Verdicts you want to cast against them anyway. Adding [card]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/card] to the mix – without a doubt the ‘Walker that holds the fort better than any since [card]Gideon Jura[/card] – and your opponent has a very difficult time breaking through the wall of defense before you can take over the game. I’ve had a little time to play with the combination of Jace and Elspeth, and while it doesn’t feel quite as insane as Mind Sculptor + Knight-Errant, it isn’t all that far off. The Sudden Disappearance of Hexproof as a metagame contender has also improved the standing of Planeswalker-based control in the format, since there are fewer unblockable attackers to threaten your ‘Walkers.

I took a version of UW control into my local FNM last week, based on a list AJ Sacher posted on his twitter feed, in order to get some familiarity with the new tools the deck could utilize, as well as get some experience against the changing face of the format in our local metagame. I started from this point:

[deck]Main Deck
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Jace, Memory Adept
4 Divination
3 Sphinx’s Revelation
1 Prophetic Prism
2 Quicken
4 Azorius Charm
4 Supreme Verdict
3 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Flare
2 Syncopate
2 Dissolve
1 Mutavault
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Azorius Guildgate
9 Island
8 Plains
Sideboard
4 Precinct Captain
3 Glare of Heresy
2 Negate
2 Dispel
2 Celestial Flare
2 Pithing Needle[/deck]

I had a little trouble finding a few of the cards in the time between my snap decision to play FNM and the start of the event, so my actual list diverged from AJ’s as follows:

Main Deck

-1 [card]Jace Architect of Thought[/card]
-2 [card]Quicken[/card]
-1 [card]Mutavault[/card]
+1 [card]Aetherling[/card]
+2 [card]Last Breath[/card]
+1 [card]Island[/card]

Sideboard

-1 [card]Precinct Captain[/card]
+1 [card]Aetherling[/card]

Such is what happens when you rely on others to supply your cards. At least both the Elspeths were mine!
Overall, I expect the deck played out similarly to the version Max played, at least similarly to how his plays post-board when the additional Jaces are in the deck. Having five Jaces in the maindeck sometimes felt like too many, and sometimes felt like not enough. In control mirrors, it seemed like I was ahead of the opponent because of my increased likelihood of sticking a Jace on turn 4, and subsequently guaranteeing myself that I would hit many more land drops than them. The decks I played against were running creatures like [card]Prognostic Sphinx[/card], and weren’t running [card obzedat, ghost council]Obzedat[/card] or [card ashiok, nightmare weaver]Ashiok[/card], which I feel made a giant difference in the overall matchups. It seems like you have an edge in the games when the opponent has creatures you can kill with [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], or when you’re both creatureless, because you have far more draw spells than they do and your Jace kills them very fast, but when you run into an Obzedat or they get to play an unchecked Ashiok you’re in a deep hole.

The thing that really drew me to AJ’s list was the four pack of [card]Divination[/card]s, something I wanted to try out to determine just how far you can push that card before it becomes debilitating. What I found was that against aggressive decks, you’ll often become [card]Divination[/card] flooded, where you can’t afford to spend three mana drawing into cards you want, because you won’t have the opportunity to play the cards once you draw them, before you die. I think this may have been a product of my decision to replace the [card]Quicken[/card]s that no one had with [card]Last Breath[/card]s, which on one hand improved the matchups with the aggressive decks by slowing them down in the early game, also made my ability to dig for reactive spells weaker. What I determined was that you’re likely to find more success by shaving the number of [card]Divination[/card]s for the [card]Last Breath[/card]/s (I recommend 1-2 in the 75, with 1 in the maindeck), rather than the [card]Quicken[/card]s. It’s very easy to undervalue the importance of having access to Quicken in the deck, but it does serve a very real purpose – and is actually part of your manabase, rather than the spell base. The fact that it allows you to answer Obzedat (an otherwise extremely difficult threat to remove) is icing on the cake.

I was much more excited about [card]Precinct Captain[/card] in theory than I was in practice, where he basically ate a [card]Shock[/card] or a bolt before he did anything of worth. I think going forward, we’ll see an adoption of Max’s Ox plan, or a similar strategy of running [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] in the main or side in its place. Neither of these deal with the problem of [card]Firefist Striker[/card]—and to a lesser extent [card]Arena Athlete[/card] – which I’ve heard are fairly good against a lone blocker. [card]Sensory Deprivation[/card] has been suggested as a potential alternative or even support to these x/4 blockers, and I think that has some merit. As a one-mana solution to a number of threats ranging from rendering a Cackler silent to making a [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card] slightly-more-manageable, it has a lot to offer to a deck just trying to buy some time.
The card I was most impressed with turned out to be a spell I’ve been playing with for months, which has taken on a new life in a format devoid of Caverns – [card]Syncopate[/card]. I don’t know if it’s simply because the midrange decks are playing different threats, or because running Planeswalkers forces your opponent to be the control to your beatdown, but having a cheap, scalable counterspell to protect your board from things like [card]Detention Sphere[/card]s and evasive threats has never felt so good. Trading one-for-one with a threat isn’t exactly where you want to be most of the time, and sinking tons of mana into a counterspell, only for your opponent to “not paying” your [card]Syncopate[/card] and cast a second threat is about the worst. But because of your higher land count, better card advantage spells, and difficult to handle Planeswalkers, it’s become more manageable to shut off a few critical spells in the opponent’s deck and run away with the game.

Speaking of running away with a game, I elected to run a pair of [card]Aetherling[/card]s in the deck, split between the maindeck and board, and I’m of two minds on the card. One mind reminds me that the card is the new [card]Morphling[/card], and there are few easier ways to win a game than just connecting with an unblockable 8/1 a few times. The other mind insults me for running a crutch, and tells me that we would likely win any of the games we’re closing out with [card]Aetherling[/card] through a combination of Elspeth and Jace anyway. It’s surely a battle I haven’t won yet, and despite seeing most of the players running Blue/X control running at least one [card]Aetherling[/card] in the main, I’m still not convinced. He’s not impossible to beat in the control mirror, and despite being capable of closing out a game against aggro, often racing their team, it isn’t exactly the threat I want in those matches either. I’ve seen many players start to play [card]Archangel of Thune[/card] in their sideboards as homage to [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card], and it really seems like the more interesting threat to me. It accomplishes the same thing – a threat that can race against aggro, and has merit against control – but it also helps turn your Elspeth tokens into real threats and brick walls your opponent’s threats as well. On the downside, it dies to most of the removal we see in the format these days, including [card]Glare of Heresy[/card], which is already awesome against us. It makes [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] better as well, which [card]Aetherling[/card] doesn’t do. I think the decision will largely be dependent on which matchups you’re trying to shore, and hinge on your expected metagame. Archangel seems much better against aggro and midrange matchups, where Aetherling is better in the control mirror. If you decide to maintain a package of six Jace in the maindeck of your UW brew, I expect you’ll gain more from Archangel in the board than Aetherling.

From the beginning, I felt like UW or a variation of UW/x was going to be where I wanted to be in this format, so seeing the first level of Standard shake out that way isn’t a disappointment to me. There is a ton of room for innovation even within the most stale of archetypes, and despite the fact that the shell of Revelation/Verdict/AZ Charm/DSphere may be old hat to some of you, the meat of the deck still has a lot of surprises in store.

Enough mixing metaphors. Good luck brewing for level 2!

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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